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When you’re giving a Children’s Moment, you should be very careful not to ask a question with a specific answer in mind. I learned this when I was in seminary, and working at a church as a trainee. The pastor was doing a Children’s sermon about this passage and she opened by asking the children, “Have any of you ever seen God?” She was looking for a no, but that’s not what she got. It’s hard to give a lesson about how no one has ever seen God when someone has, so the lesson devolved into an account of the sighting.
“Where did you see God?”
“Up in that window up there.”
“What did God look like?”
“Like an old man. With a big white beard.”
Eventually she made it back to her original point, but it was greatly obscured by the fact that her basic thesis had been challenged by a 9-year old girl.
Though I have met at least one little girl who begged to differ, our passage for today tells us that no one has ever seen God, and that God is love. I would argue that no one has ever seen love either. Love is a deep feeling of affection that we have for each other. But it is not something we can see until someone puts it into action. Love can only be seen in the loving. The author of 1st John knows this, because it says, “God’s love for us was revealed in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” That is, God is love, and you can see that God is love by seeing God’s actions in Jesus.
For 1st John, writing to other members of his own community, this seems obvious. They are steeped in the tradition, having heard from eyewitnesses and those who knew the disciples, and can easily see and affirm the love of God in Jesus. But for us, 2,000 years later and halfway across the world, the connection is maybe a little bit harder to see. Ok, God’s love is revealed in Christ. But how?
To talk about that I want to go back to the beginning. In the beginning, God creates the world. God brings forth order out of chaos, life out of nothingness. And God saw that it was good. But there is a hitch shortly after the first human arrives. God sees that it is not good for humanity to be alone. But God does not know how to solve this problem. So God creates all of the animals, and passes them by Adam, who names each one of them. But none of them are the partner that Adam needs. God might know everything. But God doesn’t know what it’s like to be human; God doesn’t know what partner Adam needs. It takes trial-and-error to figure that out.
You can read the rest of the Bible as the story of God’s attempts to work out that problem. God loves humanity, and God wants for us to experience that love and flourish. But God does not know what it is like to be human, the gap between God and humanity is too big to bridge. God tries a number of things. With Abraham, God creates a covenant, with Moses God gives the people a law, and with David God creates a kingdom. But humans, through either pride or terror, manage to mess it up. Either we become convinced we do not need God, or we are so scared we reach out for anything that will promise to make things better.
Over the course of the Bible, God tries everything. Like the parent of a young child, God wheedles, pleads, threatens, argues, reasons, and nags. God uses the carrot and the stick, the blessing and the promise. God sends prophets to proclaim, judges to judge, and leaders to lead. All of them are attempts to love. The story of the Bible is the story of God’s attempts to love humanity, to convince humanity to dwell in holy, fruitful, and blessed relationship with God. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. But there they are. And they tell us who we are.
And in the fullness of time, God chooses to become human, and thereby to understand what it’s like to be human. God sets aside Godly things, and takes on human things. Not just living as a human—the breathing, the walking, the aching, and the crying. God chooses to take on the fundamental and utter existential terror of human existence, our intense fear of being alone and abandoned. This is the love of God, who in order to love us, laid down his strength and took on our weakness.
And having become a human he showed us how to be human to each other, to love each other and to serve each other by loving and serving us. He gave sight to the blind, he healed the sick, he sought the lost and forgotten. And eventually, we did what we always do, and Jesus made his lonely way to Golgotha. And in that place was our salvation wrought, for there it was that God knew our worst fears. To be utterly and totally abandoned, forgotten by friends, family, and God. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” That is his most human moment, that feeling of forsakenness, of abandonment, of hopelessness. In that moment God knew what it was to be truly human: to be alone, and weak, and afraid.
And Jesus died like that, on the cross. And he went down into hell and he chased off the devil and freed the saints and rose up bright and early Sunday morning so that everyone would know the good news: not even death can keep you from the love of God. This is the love that God revealed in Jesus Christ, so that we might know what God’s love is – that no matter what you’re going through, no matter what cross you bear, Christ is crucified with you, and if Christ is united with you in pain, in suffering, and even death, then surely you will be united with Christ in power, peace, and resurrection.
This is the love that is revealed in the actions of God, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is the best of love. To lay down one’s life for another. And all of our human loves are at their most Godly when they are like this one. When we lay down our own wants, our own needs, our own selves, and reach out to care for another. If we want to love each other like God loves. If we want to love God, we have to learn how to do as God did in Christ. We have to learn how to lay down our own lives for others.
On National Coming Out Day a few years ago, I read a story of a man named Daniel, who had come out of the closet as a seminary student. While he was there, the news of course, had gotten to his home church. When he came back home for Christmas, he knew that everyone at church knew his truth. But the only person whose opinion he was worried about was Mrs. H. For him, Mrs. H was the church. She taught Sunday School, she sang in the choir, directed pageants, visited people, and led Bible study. Have you ever known someone like that?
Daniel was so afraid, that he avoided her at Christmas Eve services. He stayed close to his family, and made sure he was looking in another direction when she walked by. But at the end of the service, when the choir walked by his pew, she handed him her bulletin, on which she’d written a note. “Dearest Danny, I have a great deal to learn about gay people and how this all fits with my faith. I hope you’ll be able to help me with that. But I do know a few things: God is love. God loves you. And perfect love casts out fear. So never be afraid to love or be afraid that I’ll stop loving you. Merry Christmas to you, your family and if there’s anyone special….him too.”
This is a beautiful love, the one that involves laying down our selves to love another. Christ laid down his life so that we would know that we are loved through anything. And Mrs. H laid down her self as well, her well-considered beliefs, her understanding, so that Danny might know that he is loved as well. We can only know God in the loving. And we know that love best in the love of others.
I got an email from my seminary a few years ago. A beloved alumna, Rev Dr. LaVonne Althouse, had died. I didn’t know her, or that she was one of the leading advocates for women’s ordination in the Lutheran Church in the 60’s. But in the obituary was an image that has hung in my mind ever since. It mentioned that Dr. Althouse had a plaque in her home that read, “Love is a basket with five loaves and two fishes. It is never enough until you give it away.”
God is love. But love can only be seen in the loving. God is seen in the loving actions of Jesus Christ. If we want God to be seen, and if we want to know God, then our love must be seen in our loving as well. We must give it away.